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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Allen Iverson's Legacy

Like many NBA observers, I suspect that Allen Iverson's retirement will be short-lived but if it is really true that Iverson has played his final NBA game then today it is certainly most fitting to remember--and be thankful for--his outstanding career. Iverson has more than his share of "haters"--from the "stat gurus" who deem him to be overrated to older fans who don't like his tattoos and hip hop persona--but no sensible person can deny that he is not only one of the greatest "little men" (six feet and under) in pro basketball history but one of the greatest players of all-time, period.

Iverson not only won the 2001 regular season MVP--though I think that Shaquille O'Neal deserved the honor that year--but he received at least one MVP vote in eight of his 13 full seasons. Iverson won the 1997 Rookie of the Year award and two All-Star MVPs while making the All-Star team 10 years in a row (2000-09). Iverson earned seven All-NBA selections, including three First Team nods.

ESPN noted that Iverson is one of only three players in NBA history who averaged at least 25 ppg, five apg and two spg--the others are Michael Jordan and Jerry West; of course, steals have only been officially recorded since 1973-74 in the NBA, so West's "career" average only includes 81 steals in 31 games in his final season, which means that in the past 35 years the only two players to average 25-5-2 during full length careers are Jordan and Iverson.

Numbers rarely tell the whole story but check out Iverson's NBA/ABA ranks in some key categories: fourth in career mpg (41.4), sixth in career scoring average (27.0 ppg), sixth in career spg (2.2), 11th in career free throws made (6277) and 22nd in career points (24,020)--and Iverson stepped up his game in the postseason, ranking second in career ppg (29.7, trailing only Michael Jordan), third in mpg (45.1, trailing only legendary iron man centers Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell) and seventh in spg (2.07, just behind Jordan).

Now, let's put those statistics in historical perspective. Iverson lapped the field in career regular season points among the six foot and under set (Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy is second with 17,949)--but he also scored more career points than Charles Barkley, Robert Parish, Adrian Dantley, Elgin Baylor, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton or Larry Bird! The regular season career mpg leader list is dominated by Hall of Fame big men like Chamberlain, Russell, Jerry Lucas and Bob Pettit, plus powerfully built swingmen Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and LeBron James. Jerry West is the only other relatively small player in the top ten and he is a legit 6-3; Latrell Sprewell, a 6-5 shooting guard, rounds out the top 10.

The free throw numbers are a testament to Iverson's mental and physical toughness: he repeatedly drove to the hoop, crashed into players who were literally 100 pounds heavier than he is, accepted the punishment and made the free throws. You can legitimately question Iverson's shot selection at times but you can never question his heart, his toughness or his will to win.

Iverson's defense is often berated but he was a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year at Georgetown and his steals numbers in the NBA attest to the fact that he certainly put forth some effort at that end of the court despite the huge offensive load that he carried. Iverson was not a lock down defender but he proved under Coach Larry Brown in Philadelphia that he could be a cog on a very good defensive team and lead that team to the NBA Finals.

Iverson won four NBA scoring titles, matching 6-7 Hall of Famer George Gervin and exceeding every other player in pro basketball history except for Jordan (10) and Chamberlain (seven). Iverson won as many scoring titles as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined! It is certainly true that Iverson did not shoot a great percentage from the field but TNT commentator Doug Collins consistently made the excellent observation that because Iverson drew so much attention with his bold forays to the hoop his misses often turned into excellent offensive rebounding opportunities for his teammates.

Many players who attempt 18-20 or more field goals per game get labeled as "selfish gunners" (though no one says that about LeBron James or Dwyane Wade). I have often expressed justifiable skepticism about how assists are officially recorded but the assist still remains the only statistic we have to quantify passing and it is worth noting that Iverson ranked in the top ten in the NBA in that category four different times, amassing a career average of 6.2 apg--better than Walt Frazier, Dave Bing and Chauncey Billups, among others.

Iverson and Billups will always be linked, of course, because Detroit's trade of Billups and Antonio McDyess to Denver for Iverson in November 2008 seems--in retrospect--to be the beginning of the end of Iverson's career. Much has been written about that trade and its aftermath--and most of what has been written is garbage. Let's dispel a few myths:

1) Contrary to revisionist history, Iverson did not "fail" in Denver: he ranked seventh in scoring and eighth in assists in 2006-07 and third in scoring and ninth in assists in 2007-08. The Nuggets made the playoffs both years, including a 50 win season in 2007-08 that was the best regular season performance by that franchise since 1987-88. In 2007, the Nuggets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Spurs, winning one more playoff game against San Antonio than LeBron James' Eastern Conference champions did in the NBA Finals. In 2008, the Nuggets were swept in the first round by the eventual Western Conference champion Lakers; Iverson led the Nuggets in scoring and assists during that series, while Carmelo Anthony shot just .364 from the field and led the Nuggets in turnovers.

2) Although Billups certainly played very well for Denver last season, the "change in culture" in Denver largely consisted of big men Nene and Kenyon Martin getting healthy, Chris Andersen playing better than anyone expected and several Western Conference teams battling injuries to key players (Spurs, Mavs, Suns, Jazz), thus enabling the Nuggets to move up in the standings. The Nuggets exceeded their 2008 win total by four, blew by undermanned Dallas and New Orleans teams in the playoffs and then lost to the Lakers.

3) When the Pistons acquired Iverson, Joe Dumars said that the team would use Iverson's ability to create shots for himself and others to become a more explosive offensive team, particularly in the fourth quarter, a time when the Pistons too often became stagnant during the past few years in the playoffs. Early in the season, Iverson played brilliantly in a Detroit win over the Lakers but the Pistons inexplicably decided that Rodney Stuckey must be in the starting lineup no matter what. That meant that either Iverson or Richard Hamilton would have to come off of the bench, a role that neither All-Star player is accustomed to filling. It made no sense for the Pistons to bring in Iverson and not let him play the way that he is used to playing, especially when Dumars specifically said that he acquired Iverson to make the Pistons more explosive offensively.

There is merit to the argument that regardless of what was said to Iverson that he should do whatever his coach asks him to do--including coming off of the bench--but clearly Iverson is too honest and too prideful to do that; Iverson does not want to sit behind inferior players. I think that Iverson is still capable of averaging 20-plus ppg for a playoff team but the poor way that the Pistons treated him--and the defiant way that Iverson responded--has clearly lowered Iverson's perceived value. The Memphis experiment was obviously doomed from the start and the less that is said about that brief moment in his career the better.

It is bitterly ironic that in the immediate wake of Iverson's retirement announcement, Iverson's name was one of just six--the others being Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal--mentioned during ESPN's NBA Shootaround as a candidate for "Player of the Decade." Love him or hate him, there is no denying Iverson's colossal impact on NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:46 AM

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Julius Erving's 40 Point Games

Last Friday, LeBron James notched the 34th 40 point game of his NBA career. According to ESPN, James ranks sixth on the list for most 40 point games before turning 25 (his 25th birthday is December 30, 2009):

Wilt Chamberlain--67
Michael Jordan--52
Bob McAdoo--47
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--38
Rick Barry--35

The problem with this list is that it does not include ABA statistics; I have insisted for years that ABA numbers should also count. Barry played his first two seasons for the NBA Warriors before jumping to the ABA for four seasons. He tallied nine 40 point games in the 1968-69 season as a member of the ABA's Oakland Oaks, so Barry actually had 44 40 point games before the age of 25; it is also worth noting that the NBA forced Barry to sit out his option year (1967-68) prior to switching leagues and that an injury limited Barry to just 35 games in 1968-69, so Barry easily could have beaten Jordan's total if he had not missed 120-plus games during that period.

Julius Erving spent his first five professional seasons in the ABA, so the methodology used to compile the above list essentially pretends that the first third of his career never happened. Erving had 39 40 point games in the ABA, including 30 prior to his 25th birthday, one on his 25th birthday (he dropped 51 on February 22, 1975) and eight more after he turned 25. I have never seen a published list of all of Erving's 40 point games; the information necessary to put together such a list is available--though not easy to find--and several years ago I made a complete chart of Erving's 48 regular season and seven playoff 40 point games:

Julius Erving's ABA/NBA 40 Point Games

1971-72 (0-5)
Virginia Squires

Date
Team Opp Total
1/20/72
VIR 115 KEN 118 40
3/4/72
VIR 117 at FLA 124 45
3/12/72
VIR 101 at KEN 104 40
3/26/72
VIR 130 at PIT 131 41
3/28/72
VIR 121 CAR 127 45

Playoffs (1-0)

4/4/72
VIR 118 at FLA 113 53

Erving tied the ABA playoff single game
scoring record, a mark that he still shares
with Roger Brown. Erving also tied Wilt
Chamberlain's record for most points by a
rookie in a playoff game.

1972-73 (9-4) Virginia
Squires

11/5/72
VIR 121 at SD 132 42
11/17/72
VIR 122 KEN 115 45
11/25/72
VIR 122 MEM 108 46
12/7/72
VIR 132 IND 129 41
12/8/72
VIR 124 at NYN 126 41
12/23/72
VIR 112 DAL 107 41
1/16/73
VIR 127 at MEM 122 46
1/31/73
VIR 100 at NYN 94 47
2/8/73
VIR 123 NYN 108 58
2/10/73
VIR 105 KEN 100 44
2/17/73
VIR 105 KEN 112 44
3/9/73
VIR 113 KEN 119 42
3/14/73
VIR 125 at DAL 114 44

Playoffs (1-0)

4/1/73
VIR 109 at KEN 104 41

1973-74 (4-3)
New York Nets

10/10/73
NYN 99 at IND 118 42
11/25/73
NYN 124 IND 126 43
1/27/74
NYN 133 CAR 114 46
2/6/74
NYN 121 at IND 100 40
3/16/74 (OT)
NYN 114 at KEN 112 41
3/17/74
NYN 105 at IND 117 41
3/27/74
NYN 102 DEN 96 43

Playoffs (1-0)

4/30/74
NYN 89 UTA 85 47

Erving's outburst in game one of the Finals
versus top defensive forward Willie Wise
set the tone for New York's 4-1 series win.

1974-75 (5-4)
New York Nets

11/13/74 (2OT)
NYN 129 at KEN 132 44
1/17/75
NYN 108 KEN 93 40
1/24/75
NYN 112 KEN 110 42
2/3/75
NYN 106 at UTA 111 40
2/14/75 (4OT)
NYN 166 SD 176 63
2/22/75
NYN 126 SD 93 51
3/19/75
NYN 119 at IND 110 42
3/23/75
NYN 111 DEN 114 40
3/30/75
NYN 130 SAN 104 40

1975-76 (2-3)
New York Nets

10/31/75 (OT)
NYN 116 STL 120 42
1/10/76 (2OT)
NYN 130 STL 141 49
1/18/76 (OT)
NYN 134 SAN 130 51
2/5/76
NYN 116 SAN 124 44
2/8/76
NYN 110 at IND 104 40

Playoffs (1-2)

4/21/76
NYN 105 at SAN 106 41
5/1/76
NYN 120 at DEN 118 45
5/4/76
NYN 121 at DEN 127 48

Erving scored 40-plus points in each of
the first two games of the Finals en route to
averaging 37.7 ppg as the Nets triumphed
4-2 to claim the ABA's last championship.

1976-77 (1-0)
Philadelphia 76ers

4/9/77
PHI 125 WAS 93 40

Playoffs (0-1)

6/5/77
PHI 107 at POR 109 40

Erving averaged 30.3 ppg in the 76ers'
six game loss to the Blazers in the Finals,
including 40 points in the last game of
the series.

1977-78 (0-1)
Philadelphia 76ers

1/19/78
PHI 109 at CLE 117 43

1979-80 (3-1)
Philadelphia 76ers

10/13/79
PHI 113 HOU 105 44
11/23/79
PHI 113 HOU 102 41
3/12/80
PHI 105 WAS 98 40
3/16/80
PHI 109 at CLE 123 41

1980-81 (1-0)
Philadelphia 76ers

11/1/80 (OT)
PHI 117 BOS 113 45

1982-83 (1-0)
Philadelphia 76ers

12/11/82
PHI 128 DET 111 44

1983-84 (1-0)
Philadelphia 76ers

2/8/84
PHI 118 HOU 107 42

Sources: Various Philadelphia 76ers Media Guides, John Grasso's ABA regular season game by game logs, personal correspondence with John Grasso.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:36 PM

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Why Would LeBron James Become Captain of the Gotham Titanic?

The 3-13 New York Knicks own the third worst record in the NBA; they have no apparent plan to become successful any time soon, only a dream--call it a delusion--that LeBron James is going to leave a championship contending team in Cleveland to become the captain of the Gotham Titanic. More than a generation ago, Micheal Ray Richardson famously lamented that the Knicks' "ship be sinking," adding that "the sky's the limit" after being asked how far the ship could plummet--but the current edition of the Knicks is even worse than Richardson's team was: the Knicks rank 29th (out of 30 teams) in points allowed (107.9), 29th in rebounding differential (-6.6) 28th in point differential (-6.5) and 28th in defensive field goal percentage (.488). The Knicks opened the Mike D'Antoni era with a 6-3 record in 2008-09 but since then they have gone 29-60, a .326 winning percentage that is worse than the Knicks' record under the much criticized Isiah Thomas regime (56-108, .341).

Last year, many Knicks' fans--and even some national commentators--were thrilled at the prospect that D'Antoni and his fabled "seven seconds or less" offensive system would improve the Knicks so much that LeBron James could be the final piece that would make the Knicks a championship contender. However, by the latter portion of the season, I pointed out that D'Antoni's Knicks were clearly heading in the wrong direction; they were lousy defensively and on the boards and--most ominously--both of those trends steadily worsened throughout the season. Despite all of the buzz about D'Antoni, his Knicks finished 32-50 in 2008-09, one game worse than the Knicks finished in Thomas' first season as their coach (2006-07).

After I told the truth about the Knicks' plight, diehard Knicks fan Mike Kurylo wrote a barely comprehensible screed in response, misspelling my name and betraying complete ignorance not only about NBA basketball but also about basic journalistic methods (he suggested that I spelled out "fourth" instead of writing "4th" because of some diabolical psychological plot to "visually" mislead readers when the reality is that it is standard practice to spell out ordinal numbers less than 10th). I refuted Kurylo's nonsense, concluding "Mike K. declares that I 'cherry picked' numbers in a 'dishonest' attempt to tell a biased story but the reality is that I simply cited the relevant numbers regarding the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Knicks, indicated that the D'Antoni Knicks have yet to surpass the level that the Thomas Knicks reached in 2007 and suggested that the Knicks need to make personnel and philosophical changes in order to become a good team."

"Stat guru" Dave Berri also jumped into the mix, incorrectly suggesting that my article compared the 2009 Knicks to the 2005 Knicks--a lie that distorts the meaning of what I wrote and that Berri refuses to retract--and offering up his usual numbers-based rhetoric to suggest that the Knicks are in fact moving in the right direction.

The funny thing about this is that Kurylo's inability to write coherently or understand NBA basketball made his website a perfect candidate to join the True Hoop Network (and Berri's ramblings are frequently cited at True Hoop as well); making the "right" friends may help one out in the writing business even when a person is incompetent but in the real world outside of the basketball blogosphere clubhouse one actually has to be organized, competent and productive in order to be successful. D'Antoni's media-friendly personality--he truly seems to be a nice guy and he is always extremely accommodating to the media--has bought him time and earned him sympathy but it will not be able to indefinitely obscure the simple fact that the Knicks are a bad team that is not improving. The argument that the Knicks had to become worse before they could get better does not fly: in order to ever become a championship team the Knicks have to establish that defense and rebounding will be their cornerstones: that is how NBA championship-winning coaches like Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley and Larry Brown built their programs.

It really looks like the Knicks are essentially tanking the 2009 and 2010 seasons in order to slash their payroll and have enough money to sign LeBron James and/or another big-time free agent--but why would an MVP-caliber player want to sign with a dysfunctional team? If there is one thing that James has learned after playing for Cleveland Coach Mike Brown it is the importance of defense--and that lesson was reinforced by James' Team USA experience when he witnessed firsthand Kobe Bryant's dedication at that end of the court.

How will the Knicks be able to justify to their fans the suffering of the 2009 and 2010 seasons if the Knicks do not sign an elite player in the summer of 2010? Moreover, even if the Knicks bring in an elite player they still would struggle to win more than 45 games without doing a major restructuring of the rest of their roster and a complete overhaul of their all-offense, no-defense/rebounding philosophy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 PM

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Trevor Ariza's Efficiency Has Plummeted in Houston

Some misinformed "stat gurus" insist that basketball can best be understood without even watching any games, because the eyes are supposedly biased but the numbers are supposedly completely objective. The "stat gurus" declare that a player's productivity is not significantly impacted by his minutes played or by who his teammates are--he is who he is regardless of his environment. For instance, several years ago I (futilely) tried to convince a "stat guru" that Gary Payton did not fit in well with Phil Jackson's Triangle Offense; the "stat guru" insisted that on a per touch basis Payton did exactly the same things in the 2003-04 season as a Laker that he had done throughout his career, even though anyone who has even an ounce of common sense could easily see that Payton neither did the same things nor was he even remotely close to being as effective as he had been earlier in his career. Similarly, Ron Harper struggled initially to fit in with the Triangle Offense when he first signed with Jackson's Chicago Bulls but Harper eventually adjusted to being a role player within the structure of that offense (as opposed to being a 20-plus ppg scorer in other offensive systems previously).

Based on the same kind of erroneous thinking that the above "stat guru" applied to Payton, the Houston Rockets essentially swapped Ron Artest--the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year and a four-time member of the All-Defensive First or Second Team--for Trevor Ariza, a role player who started for the Lakers' 2009 championship team. The Rockets' brain trust believed that Ariza--who clearly benefited from playing alongside Kobe Bryant last season--could emerge as a star in Houston.

Ariza only averaged more than 20 mpg once in his first four seasons. During that time, he displayed little ability to shoot the ball (3FG% of .278 or lower each year, FT% of .695 or lower each year) or to create a shot for himself or others; he served primarily as an athletic, energetic role player who could finish very well at the rim and play solid defense against perimeter players. Then in 2008-09 he played in all 82 games for the first time in his career, logging a career-high 20 regular season starts--including the final 19 games of the season. Ariza also started all 23 playoff games as the Lakers won the NBA Championship. Although his free throw shooting was still subpar at best (.710 FT% in the regular season, .563 FT% in the playoffs), he improved his three point shooting stroke (.319 3FG% in the regular season, .476 3FG% in the playoffs), an upgrade which is directly attributable to Bryant not only because Bryant drew so many defenders that Ariza had wide open looks but also because Bryant provided Ariza with an offseason program specifically geared to making someone a better three point shooter. Presumably, the technical improvements that Ariza made to his shooting stroke should survive being separated from Bryant but Ariza is still a player who struggles to create a shot for himself or others; he is best suited to be a team's fourth or fifth offensive option, not to lead a team in field goal attempts and/or scoring. Consequently, Ariza will be much more efficient in the role that he played last year in L.A. than if he is expected to be the focal point of a team's offense.

Essentially, a "stat guru" looks at Ariza's career year in 2008-09, factors in that Ariza is only 24 years old and projects that Ariza could be an All-Star if he simply played more minutes and got more touches. In contrast, after the de facto Artest-Ariza swap I wrote that in Houston Ariza will most likely remain a solid role player as opposed to developing into a star. I made that conclusion based on analyzing Ariza's skill set, as I described above; I understand that Ariza's 2008-09 productivity is a result of him playing alongside Bryant and that if Ariza's minutes/touches/role are increased he is unlikely to be able to maintain the same efficiency level.

There is still a long way to go in the 2009-10 season but here are the preliminary results of Houston's Ariza experiment: he has started all 14 games for the Rockets, is averaging a career-high 38.6 mpg and is leading the team in scoring (18.3 ppg) and field goal attempts. Do these numbers vindicate the "stat guru" perspective? As Lee Corso loves to say, "Not so fast my friend." Let's look at the whole picture. Ariza is shooting a career-low .388 from the field, though his three point shooting is solid (.343). On a per minute basis, Ariza is averaging a career-low in rebounds and a career-high in turnovers. Ariza's assist numbers are up--on both a per game and per minute basis--but I suspect that this is a result of a small sample size; Ariza had five or more assists in five of Houston's first nine games but he has had four or fewer assists in each of Houston's last five games. Similarly, even though Ariza's overall 3FG% is good the numbers are trending downward at an alarming pace: he made 11 of his first 21 three pointers (.524) but has shot just 23-78 (.294) from long range since then.

The Rockets have increased Ariza's minutes and field goal attempts but instead of "A Star is Born" we are witnessing "A Role Player is Overworked." Ariza averaged 23.3 ppg while shooting .500 from the field (including the aforementioned .524 from three point range) in his first three games as a Rocket but he has averaged 16.9 ppg on .361 field goal shooting (69-191) since that time. Many NBA players are capable of averaging 15-18 ppg if they have the opportunity to fire up enough shots but that does not make them stars. Look for Ariza's field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage and assist numbers to continue to drop as long as the Rockets depend on him to be their primary offensive option--but if stars Tracy McGrady and/or Yao Ming return to action and Ariza is able to resume being a 20 mpg role player then Ariza's scoring average will decline but his shooting percentages will bounce back somewhat.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:13 PM

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Monday, November 23, 2009

"Kobe Doin' Work" DVD Extras Provide Compelling Portrait of a Basketball Artist

The DVD version of Spike Lee's documentary "Kobe Doin' Work" will be available in stores on November 24 but I can provide a sneak preview because I received a review copy recently. Lee focused more than 30 cameras on Kobe Bryant before, during and after the L.A. Lakers' 106-85 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on April 13, 2008, literally obtaining a panoramic perspective of the 2008 NBA MVP in action. I wrote a review of "Kobe Doin' Work" when the program originally aired on ESPN, so this post will focus on the DVD's special features.

The DVD includes various audio tracks, including "censored" and "uncensored" versions of the main program (the "uncensored" track contains profanity) and has subtitles in English, French and Spanish (the subtitles are not available on some of the special features). Most of the special features are excellent, though it would have been nice if some of them were lengthier, particularly the segment in which Lee talks about collaborating with Bryant; Lee explains how he and Bryant got together so that Bryant could record an audio commentary to accompany Lee's footage of the game: Bryant's tight schedule forced him to cancel his first appointment with Lee, so their last chance to meet was when the Lakers made their only trip of the season to New York to face the Knicks during the 2009 Super Bowl weekend. Bryant set up a meeting with Lee for right after the Lakers-Knicks game. Bryant dropped a Madison Square Garden record 61 points on the Knicks in a 126-117 Lakers win and then in the postgame press conference Bryant jokingly blamed this outburst on Lee, noting that he made sure that the Knick-loving Lee would have nothing to talk trash about during their upcoming session. In the DVD special feature, Lee declares, "As a Knicks fan, I've been going to games since I was 10 years old and we appreciate great players but I have never, ever, ever heard New York Knick fans chant 'MVP' (for an opposing player). And, to be honest, that was blasphemous" (Lee laughs after that last statement). Listening to Bryant comment not only about the Spurs game but also about his just completed MSG masterpiece was an eye opening experience for Lee, who says of Bryant, "His basketball IQ is (like) Albert Einstein."

The DVD special feature "The Unseen Fourth Quarter" includes footage from the final stanza of the Lakers-Spurs game that was not included in the documentary broadcast. The reason that the footage is "unseen" is that Bryant carried the Lakers to a 12 point lead by the end of the third quarter and--for once--the Lakers' reserves did not squander that advantage, thus enabling Bryant to spend the game's final 12 minutes watching from the bench. Bryant provided tips to young players Luke Walton and Jordan Farmar and encouraged veterans Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom.

The DVD includes about three minutes of footage from the press conference after the Laker-Spurs game, with the main highlight being Bryant's statement that the Lakers had found their "defensive identity" in recent weeks and had become "very aggressive" at that end of the court. They maintained that "defensive identity" well enough to advance to the 2008 NBA Finals, where they ran into a superior defensive team from Boston that eliminated the Lakers in six games--but the Lakers learned their lessons well from that setback, playing better and tougher at that end of the court in 2009, culminating in a five game Finals triumph over the Orlando Magic.

A 4:25 photo montage consisting mainly of striking black and white images is so expertly edited and cut that at times the still pictures morph into each other so seamlessly that they look like clips from a movie trailer. Elite basketball players are extraordinarily athletic and expressive and Lee does an outstanding job of creating a beautiful, poetic depiction of the NBA game.

The "Levitate" music video by Bruce Hornsby includes images from the photo montage blended with full color, live action shots. Hornsby's opening lyrics capture Bryant's essence: "Well, what have we here?/What do I see?/I think someone's coming out to challenge me./I love it, I say 'Bring it.'" Later, Hornsby sings, "I'm searching for a state of ecstasy/The armchair cynical experts I just let them be," words that simultaneously describe Bryant's love of the game while also dismissing the ignorant ramblings of fools like John Krolik, Henry Abbott and Bill Simmons, people whose biases--Cavs fan, Blazers fan and Celtics fan respectively--and lack of understanding of the nuances of basketball prevent them from appreciating Bryant's finely honed skill set. Lee's footage vividly captures the on-court action that I have verbally described so often; one sequence shows Bryant drawing a double team and then slickly dishing to Lamar Odom for an easy dunk, while in another clip Bryant powers to the hoop, forces Tim Duncan to provide defensive help and then slides a layup attempt between Duncan's outstretched arms. The ball rolls off of the rim, but Pau Gasol is there for an uncontested putback. Bryant makes the game very easy for his center and power forward--they get free runs to the hoop because the opposing defense has to focus on trying to contain Bryant. As Hornsby croons, "Time for the master of time and space/Time for the shake and bake."

The DVD includes the brief "E:60" segment about the making of "Kobe Doin' Work." Lee exhorts the cameramen, "Body parts--his legs are beautiful, his arms, shoulders: get these nice pieces, please."

After watching "Kobe Doin' Work" and the accompanying special features, any intelligent viewer realizes that just like a great movie director controls every image and every piece of audio, Bryant is an impresario who has a hand--and voice--in almost everything that the Lakers do at both ends of the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:15 PM

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